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More correctly, I’m worried about our use of and dependency on the Web search engine, Google.  Why?  Because some of us have forgotten how to enter a website address directly rather than find it via Google.  What’s prompted this outburst is an item on today’s BBC website in which a group of so-called fraudsters have been jailed for setting up copycat websites and charging a fee for a service which is either free in the first place, such as registering for a National Health Service (NHS) European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), or which charges a standard fixed fee, such as applying for or renewing a UK passport.  The group of six people apparently earned £37M from their websites and will now enjoy a stay in HM Prisons.

How did they get away with it?  Let’s first understand how the scam works. Let me assume you are wanting to renew your EHIC but you don’t know the website address (more later on that) so you turn to Google and enter “EHIC renewal”.  Google returns thousands of websites (over 85,000 when I did this today) but nobody will ever wade through such a vast list.  No, we will look for a website among the first twenty websites listed.   The first website listed was a bona fide NHS website, the organisation that issues EHICs.  The second website was the UK government’s website which, if you click on Start, will redirect you to the NHS website.  Both websites stress the fact that the EHIC is free to qualified holders.

It’s the third website you should question.  It’s not a copycat website but it offers a service you don’t need.

The third website listed will take you to a site named EHIC Application Form and whose website address is https://www.europeanhealthinsurancecard.org.uk/e111-renewal/   Looks good, eh?  To be fair, however, note the statement at the top of the opening page that says the website is not affiliated to the NHS, that if you use the site to apply for your EHIC, you will be charged a £35 fee, and that you can obtain the card for free directly from the NHS.  All that will happen is the EHIC Application Form website will charge you £35 to submit your request on to the official NHS site in order for you to obtain the card.  It’s as if you bring in an apple to give to the teacher but someone else in your class offers to deliver it for a fee.  Where’s the added value in using his or her intermediary service?

Here’s another example—applying for a UK passport.  Again, let’s assume we do not know which website to go to and again we turn to Google and enter “UK passport application”.  The UK government is the only organisation that can renew the passports of its citizens and it charges a set fee: £72.50 for an online renewal, or £82.25 if you use the UK Post Office’s Passport Check and Send Service.  But look what turned up in position number 5 in the first twenty sites listed by Google: the UK Passport Company.

Now, I’m sure the UK Passport Company will do everything they say—check your application, make sure you’ve provided all the right support documents and photograph, and then submit the application—but note the rider in the introductory comments: there will be a fee of £25 on top of the standard UK government fees, and this is for a service you could have done yourself by going directly to the UK government website.

I accept that some people might want to use the services of companies such as the EHIC Application Form or UK Passport Office, neither of which is a copycat website, but most of us do not need an intermediary third party to check a few simple facts.  The problem is we’ve become so dependent on Google to take us to the right website that we’ve forgotten what Google is and how to read the elements of a website address.

Google is just an index to the multitude of websites that make up the World Wide Web.  It’s just like an index to, say, an encyclopaedia.  In the good old days, the days when Encyclopaedia Britannica took pride of place on our bookshelves, if we wanted to know where aardvarks live, for example, we would turn to the Index volume and look up aardvark.  There may be multiple entries and we pick one, check it out, and return to pick another if the first selection did not reveal where they live.

That’s all Google does and that’s why we get such long lists of websites that may or may not be what we’re looking for.  The trick for proper use of Google is to check the website address before clicking through to enter.  To do this, we should understand the elements of a website address.  Here’s a refresher.

A website address, sometimes referred to as a Uniform Resource Locator (URL), contains a minimum of four major elements: the transfer protocol and a 3-part domain name where domain means the actual address of the website.  Consider this example: https://www.amazon.com  Here’s the breakdown of this website’s address:

https:// denotes the transfer protocol, the method by which data from the website is transferred across the Internet to your web browser (Microsoft Edge, Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Microsoft Internet Explorer, Apple Safari, etc.) on your laptop, tablet or smartphone.  In the early days of the Web’s development, there were various ways of transferring data from a website to a receiving browser on a computer but nowadays, we have settled down with the HyperText Transfer Protocol—that’s what the http stands for; the s is for Secure.

www stands for World Wide Web and is the first part of the domain name.
.amazon is the name of the website itself and is the second part of the domain name.
.com is the top-level part of the domain name.

There are many variations on this simple structure.  For example, the name part may consist of multiple names as in https://www.wholesale.molesseeds.co.uk/ (a genuine website, by the way). Similarly, there are now many varieties of the terminating top-level part of the domain name.  .com (commercial) is still the most common, followed by .org (organisation), .edu (educational), .gov (government), .co.uk (a UK website), .net (network), and many more top-level domains now in use.

Note also that some organisations and people who own websites drop the front-end https:// transfer protocol part and the www part and simply list the second and third parts of the domain name.  Hence https://www.amazon.com might appear in an advertisement as simply amazon.com

The more you understand the anatomy of a website address, the less likely you are to be lured onto a bogus website.  Whenever you click through from Google, always check the address of the website you’ve landed on.  The address will be displayed somewhere near the top of your browser, usually on the left-hand side.  I use Firefox as my browser.  Here’s the location of the address:

Get into the habit of checking the website address.  If you know the website address, enter it directly into the website address space rather than rely on Google to find it.  If you do these two things, you will become more aware of what constitutes a website address and more sensitive to not entering a website that will con you out of money you don’t need to spend or, worse, will entice you to download and install malware.

Say no to Google and enjoy the money you save!